Florida wildlife managers want public's help to slow spread of dangerous invasive lizard

Chad Gillis
Fort Myers News-Press

State wildlife managers are making a push to help educate the public about one of Florida's most dangerous invasive species: the Argentine black and white tegu. 

These invasive lizards can grow to 5 feet and eat native wildlife and their eggs. 

"The tegus could be the next Burmese python," said Melissa Miller, invasive species research coordinator for the University of Florida's Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center. "With eradication, we’re already past that with tegus. We’re looking to contain these large lizards now because the stage after that is long-term management, and that’s very costly." 

Tegus are adept predators but they're also omnivores, a feeding strategy that allows them to easily adapt to Florida's lush habitats. 

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Tegus currently have breeding populations in Miami-Dade, Polk, and Hillsborough.

"They got here through the pet trade and they’ve been here as escaped or released pets for about 20 years," Miller said. "They’re very popular in the pet trade. If they’re raised from hatchlings they can be really docile pets." 

Females typically lay about 35 eggs and can nest up to three times a year. 

"It’s not good for ground nesting birds, sea turtles," Miller said. "They’ve eaten small gopher tortoises. And they have some really bad impacts on some really sensitive areas."

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Miller and her group have removed more than 2,000 tegus across the state over the past 20 years. 

Although the lizard is likely able to thrive in all of Florida, it's main populations can be found in Florida City and Charlotte, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade and St. Lucie counties, Miller said. 

"It's important to get at and contain them before they spread," Miller said, adding that the lizards are able to tolerate temperatures much colder than Florida experiences. "Tegus were able to over winter in Alabama. Studies show that with their thermal tolerance they are able to survive much colder temperatures than we have." 

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Argentine Black And White Tegu

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A wild population is already established in Georgia. 

"Their size helps them, so they’re not going to have the same predators as our lizards," Miller said. "With a varied diet, they don’t tend to face a lot of competition, and they’re too big for a lot of things to eat." 

Are they dangerous to people?

"While tegus are omnivores and eat a variety of plant and animal matter, we are not aware of any serious injuries on humans or domestic pets in the state of Florida," said Sarah Funck, nonnative fish and wildlife program coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, or FWC. "However, tegus have sharp teeth and claws, and a strong tail that they will use to defend themselves if they are cornered or feel threatened."

The state recommends that you report all tegu sightings to the FWC’s exotics species hotline at 888-IveGot1 (888-483-4681), or online at Ivegot1.org. If possible, take a picture and note the location when reporting, FWC recommends. 

Funck said the time to fight the species is now, before it becomes an even larger ecological problem. 

“Tegus are an ever-increasing problem in Florida, but we can minimize the threats they pose to our natural environment through continued control efforts and by preventing new populations from establishing," Funck said "It is critical that we receive reports of tegus when they are seen in the wild, especially in areas where they are not already established." 

Connect with this reporter: @ChadEugene on Twitter.